West Seattle — the oldest and the biggest of Seattle’s neighborhoods — is both a peninsula and a state of mind. The first Euro-American settlers arrived here (on Alki Point) in 1851, but left within a few months, moving to a more agreeable location on the other side of Elliott Bay (the site of present-day downtown Seattle). Orphaned at an early age, isolated by water on three sides, West Seattle has clung to its cultural independence, remaining determinedly aloof even while fighting tenaciously for the bridges, highways, and ferries that have brought it closer to its sprawling neighbor to the east.
“By and By”
The West Seattle peninsula (known as Me-Kwa-Mooks — “shaped like a bear’s head” — in the Nisqually dialect) juts into Puget Sound at a point the Duwamish Indians called sbuh-KWAH-buks. It was here, on the rainy morning of November 13, 1851, that a group of 10 adults and 12 children disembarked from the schooner Exact. The leader of the group, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), later said it was “as wild a spot as any on earth” (Prosser). When the women saw what was supposed to be their new home, they quite sensibly wept.
Waiting for them on the beach was one member of their advance party (the other had temporarily left the site); a roofless cabin, the first structure in what the settlers hoped would become a great metropolis; and a group of Duwamish Indians, including a kind-hearted tyee, or chief, Seattle.
There were at least 17 Duwamish and Suquamish villages in the Puget Sound region when the Denny party arrived. Indian artifacts dating to the sixth century have been found at one archeological site on the West Seattle peninsula. The point where the party landed (now marked by an obelisk at 63rd Avenue SW and Alki Avenue SW) had long been used as a Duwamish burial site. Nonetheless, the settlers claimed ownership of all they could survey under the 1850 Donation Land Law.
They named their would-be town New York, after the hometown of one of the men in the party. It’s not clear who added the tag “al-ki,” a word meaning “by and by” or “in a while” in Chinook (a crude trade jargon developed by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers). In any case, the place became known as New York-Alki and, eventually, as simply Alki — pronounced “AL-kee” by some purists, “al-KEE” by others, and “al-kye” (rhymes with sky) by everyone else.
Over the next few months, the settlers completed the first cabin and built three more, but it continued to rain, food supplies ran low, and several members of the party fell sick. Among them was Mary Denny, Arthur’s wife, who managed to persuade her infant son, Rolland, to accept clam juice as an alternative to mother’s milk. In the spring, after what was by all accounts a miserable winter, most of the settlers decamped to the eastern shore of Elliott Bay, where they found a better harbor and a more sheltered townsite.
Of the original Denny party, only Charles C. Terry (1830-1867) and John and Lydia Low and their four children remained at the landing spot. The Lows hung on for a year and then sold out, leaving Terry as the sole owner of New York-Alki.
Terry platted and renamed the town on May 28, 1853. Perhaps in recognition of diminished expectations, he called it, simply, Alki. The Olympia Columbian approved of the new name. “We never fancied the name of New York on account of its inappropriateness,” the newspaper editorialized, “but Alki we subscribe to instanta. It is a pretty word, convenient, not borrowed or stolen from any other town or city, and is in its meaning expressive even unto prophesy. The interpretation of the word Alki being ‘by-and-by, in a little while, or hereafter,’ we must approve its application to a growing and hopeful place” (June 4, 1853).
The little community grew, but at a pace that must have frustrated Terry, its chief entrepreneur and booster. Terry operated a general store, served as postmaster, became a partner in a sawmill, and convinced two other men to open a barrel-making business. However, by 1854 both the sawmill and the barrel business had closed, followed the next year by the post office. Terry finally gave up in 1856, trading his 320 acres at Alki to David S. “Doc” Maynard (1808-1873) in exchange for Maynard’s 260 acres in downtown Seattle.
With the departure of the last of the original settlers, Alki settled into a future in which modest hopes were balanced by stark realities. Buffeted by winds and tides that hampered shipping, the town’s exposed location limited its commercial and industrial potential. Most subsequent industry in West Seattle developed on the calmer, east-facing shores of Elliott Bay and on the Duwamish River. Maynard soon discovered that the land around Alki wasn’t suitable for farming, either. He, too, finally sold out, in 1868. For the next decade or so, Alki lay in an eddy of history, left to only a few intrepid souls.
Industrial, Commercial Growth
Meanwhile, several distinct communities emerged elsewhere on the peninsula. The strip of land where Harbor Avenue is today became an industrial center, with a sawmill, several shipbuilding yards, and a salmon cannery all in business by 1880. More industries were attracted to the area after 1895, when the Corps of Engineers began dredging the Duwamish River and filling in the tideflats at its mouth, creating the East and West Waterways with manmade Harbor Island in the middle. A milltown known as Freeport, and later as Milton, and still later as Youngstown (and today as Delridge), provided housing, saloons, and other amenities for the workers.
The business and commercial center shifted to the town of West Seattle, in today’s Admiral district, first platted in 1885 and taken over by a land development company in 1888. Residential neighborhoods developed in Fauntleroy, Gatewood, Highland Park, Arbor Heights, and elsewhere. Alki gradually became a resort area, with summer homes for the wealthier residents of rapidly urbanizing Seattle and a “natatorium” (swimming pool) and other attractions for the public at large.
Of these communities, only the town of West Seattle ever incorporated as a separate political entity (in 1902). Several attempts to annex Youngstown, Alki, and an area known as Spring Hill to West Seattle did not succeed. West Siders were not accustomed to thinking of themselves as a joined community. However, they have consistently found common cause on one issue: improved access to the mainland.
Boats, Trains, and Bridges
Before 1888, public transportation between West Seattle and Seattle was limited to the irregular and infrequent service provided by the “Mosquito Fleet” steamships that docked at Alki. That year, the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company (financed largely by San Francisco capital) bought most of what is now the Admiral district, replatted it, and began investing in transportation and other amenities in order to attract potential home buyers.
The company built a dock near today’s Seacrest Marina and began offering regular service to downtown Seattle on a steam-powered sidewheeler named the City of Seattle, the first bona fide ferry on Puget Sound, launched December 24, 1888. The crossing took eight minutes. One hundred and thirteen years, ten bridges, and tens of millions of dollars later, the City of Seattle still holds the record for the fastest trip between Seattle and West Seattle.
The company also provided the first cable railway service to West Seattle, opening a two-mile line in September 1890, for the benefit of ferry commuters. Around the same time, Northern Pacific’s Seattle Terminal Railway built the first bridge across the Duwamish, a trestle, which also connected to the ferry.
The developers sold more than $300,000 worth of West Seattle property during the cable line’s first year of operation. However, the onset of a national economic crisis in 1893 left West Seattle, like the region as a whole, with a collapsing real estate market and a growing number of shuttered businesses. The cable line limped along until 1897, when the company closed it. Only the ferry, the railway trestle, and a winding wagon road were left to link West Seattle to the mainland.
A Town Is Born
Over the next few years, the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company repeatedly promised to improve the transportation system, provide more reliable water supplies, and install electric lighting on the peninsula. By 1902, however, none of these plans had materialized. West Seattle residents decided to take matters into their own hands, and voted (by a margin of 97 to 68) to incorporate as a city of the fourth class. The new town included most of the land between Duwamish Head and South Street (now Lander). It did not include Alki, which had become a full-fledged resort community with a fiercely independent contingent of year-round residents.
The West Seattle City Council met for the first time on May 6, 1902, in a former school that had been converted into a community center. The Council’s first major civic project was the construction of a stout jail, 12 feet by 12 feet and seven feet high. The Council planned to improve the community’s public services by issuing franchises to private utilities, but there was little interest. One year later, West Seattle still had no streetcars, no electricity for private homes, few telephones, and an unreliable water system.
By the spring of 1903, some civic leaders were advocating annexation to Seattle as the only viable solution to the continuing problems with public services. “There is no city in the world with a better water supply than our big neighbor across the bay,” the West Seattle News editorialized, “…and this can be ours for the asking…” (May 15, 1903).
However, there was also considerable opposition to annexation, by those who feared it would mean a loss of local control. This faction prevailed, at least for a few years. The town decided it would build its own streetcar system, financed by municipal bonds. Before it could issue the bonds, however, it had to be upgraded, from fourth to third class status. On July 5, 1904, after proving that it had the required 1,500 residents, West Seattle reincorporated as a city of the third class. That same day, the City Council issued 18 bonds of $1,000 each to build what would become the first municipally owned streetcar system in the country.
The new streetcar line, which began operating in late December 1904, was only a mile long. As a municipally owned enterprise, it could not be extended beyond the town limits. In 1906, both Alki and Youngstown firmly rejected an offer from West Seattle to provide service to those communities in return for annexation.
Putting its faith in private enterprise once again, the City Council subsequently sold the railway to the Seattle Electric Railway Company, which operated all the streetcar lines in Seattle. The company promised to provide a direct connection to Seattle via a new swing bridge at Spokane Street and to build a new line along California Avenue. First, however, Seattle Electric built a line to what was then a virtually uninhabited area called Fauntleroy Park, a decision heavily influenced by a $50,000 contribution to the company from real estate speculators.
Service on the Fauntleroy Park line began February 15, 1907. The route looped from the community of Youngstown, on the eastern side of the peninsula, to Alaska Street, and from there west to California Avenue, following California south to “Endolyne” — the end of the line — at 45th Avenue and Roxbury Street. After Youngstown, there was scarcely a building to be seen along the entire route. Within weeks, however, half a dozen real estate offices had sprouted around the intersection of Alaska and California, an area that became known as the Junction. The streetcar brought in buyers by the carload. For years, the boom of 1907 was legendary among West Seattle real estate agents.
While the transportation network was improving, other public services continued to falter. Eager to tap into Seattle’s Cedar River water supply and municipal power system, the town of West Seattle initiated yet another annexation campaign in 1907. First, however, West Seattle had to annex Youngstown: in order to get power and water from Seattle, West Seattle needed a corridor, and Youngstown was in the way. After a hotly contested election on May 25, 1907, West Seattle annexed Youngstown, Alki, and the adjacent community of Spring Hill. City officials promptly petitioned for annexation to Seattle. The measure, submitted to the voters June 29, passed easily. West Seattle officially became part of Seattle one month later. Consisting of more than 16 square miles, it was by far the largest of the six towns annexed by Seattle in 1907.
Bridging the Gap
With streetcars, pedestrians, horse-drawn wagons, and a growing number of automobiles all sharing the Spokane Street swing bridge between Seattle and West Seattle, pressure increased for additional bridges to ease the congestion. (A swing bridge is hinged on a turntable in the middle of the river, allowing it to swing open for marine traffic). A second, higher swing bridge was added in 1911. As a cost saving measure, the bridge carried West Seattle’s new Cedar River water mains. Each time it was opened, the mains had to be uncoupled, temporarily shutting off the town’s water supply.
The need for a bridge that would let traffic cross without delay became a perennial political issue in West Seattle. The first organized campaign for a fixed span, high bridge at Spokane Street began in 1916. Pro-bridge advertisements warned that “in two years time traffic on Spokane Street, will be at certain periods of the day, almost impassable” (West Side Story, 51). Instead of a high bridge, the city built another “temporary” swing bridge, opened in 1918.
The elimination of direct ferry service between West Seattle and downtown Seattle in 1921 put the burden of carrying West Side commuters directly on the wooden frames of the Spokane Street swing bridges. Pressed to come up with a long-term solution, the Seattle City Council authorized the construction of a concrete and steel bascule bridge, opened in 1924 (“bascule” means “rocker” in French, referring to the hinge that allows the structure to open in the middle). A second bascule bridge, identical to and immediately south of the first, was completed six years later.
These two bridges served as the primary arteries (one used for westbound traffic, the other for eastbound) to West Seattle for more than 50 years, despite ever-increasing congestion and complaints about their inadequacy. During World War II, thousands of workers flooded in to work at defense plants on Harbor Island. By the end of the war, West Seattle’s population had doubled, to more than 70,000. The Spokane Street viaduct, linking Harbor Island with Beacon Hill, was completed in 1943 with emergency funding from the federal government (as a defense measure), but there were few other transportation improvements until the 1980s.
A renewed campaign for a high level Spokane Street bridge began in the early 1970s. The Seattle City Council authorized construction of the bridge in 1972, but the project was delayed for years, first by concerns about the design, then by a scandal involving kickbacks to public officials. Cost estimates soared, from $37 million to $170 million. Charles Royer, elected mayor of Seattle in 1977, advocated abandoning the plans and fixing up the drawbridges instead. By March 1978, frustrated West Seattleites were talking seriously about seceding from Seattle and reincorporating as an independent city, in an effort to qualify for state highway funds and build the bridge on their own.
The debate came to an end when — as local punsters put it — the ship hit the span. On the morning of June 11, 1978, the freighter Antonio Chavez rammed one of the bascule bridges, damaging it beyond repair. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) quickly rounded up $110 million in federal money to help build the long-awaited high bridge. Construction began in 1980; the bridge opened four years later.
If At First You Don’t Secede…
The improved transportation web (which, in recent years, has included a “water taxi” from Seacrest Marina to downtown Seattle) has done little to reduce West Seattle’s characteristic insularity. Talk of secession flared in the 1980s in response to the Seattle School District’s use of busing to promote racial integration; and again in the 1990s, when Seattle city planners tried to establish four “urban villages” in West Seattle. The iconoclastic Charlie Chong, former City Councilman and unsuccessful candidate for mayor, served as spokesman for a group of West Seattleites who asked the Legislature to help them secede from the city in 1995. The Legislature agreed, passing a secession bill sponsored by State Senator Mike Heavey, a West Seattle Democrat, but it was vetoed by then-Governor Mike Lowry.
More than most city neighborhoods, West Seattle is defined by its natural environment. Among the peninsula’s many parks, greenbelts, and beaches is Schmitz Park — a 50-acre stand of massive, old-growth Douglas fir and western red cedar, many towering more than 200 feet, their roots carpeted by sword ferns and salal. The park is a living reminder of what West Seattle looked like in 1851, when the Denny party stumbled ashore at Alki.
West Seattle is also a neighborhood that is “particularly marked with mementos of the Indian past” (Furtwangler, 141). The Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 required the Duwamish Indians who were living in what became Seattle to move onto reservations established for other tribes. Some followed Chief Seattle to the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison. Others moved to the Tulalip or Muckleshoot reservations. Many refused to move, or shuttled back and forth between reservations. Some retreated to the West Seattle peninsula, where they carried on, at least for a while, with traditional ways of life. What was apparently their last enclave in West Seattle was destroyed in 1893, when a white man (identified only as “Watson”) set fire to eight makeshift homes on the banks of what is today the East Waterway.
Still, traces of the Native American presence remain. Many longtime residents tell stories about finding middens full of clam scrapers, arrowheads, and other artifacts in the 1920s and 1930s. Two vista points looking across Elliott Bay toward the city are marked with Northwest Indian totem poles. Each year, West Seattle merchants sponsor a summertime festival called Hi-Yu (Chinook jargon for “plenty” or “big time”). In another, if distorted, tribute to the community’s Indian heritage, a popular playfield is named Hiawatha, after the Iroquois leader memorialized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
One additional variant on the theme has been abandoned. When West Seattle High School reopened in the fall of 2002 after extensive remodeling and restoration, it jettisoned the nickname it had used for its athletic teams for more than 80 years: the “Indians.” The school’s student-run Native American Club had objected to the name, prompting a Seattle Public Schools policy banning the use of tribal names for teams, clubs, and mascots. The alumni association challenged the decision but a King County Superior Court judge upheld the school district. The students subsequently adopted the inoffensive “Wildcats” as their new nickname.
The autobiographical sketch by Arthur Denny is found in William Farrand Prosser, A History of the Puget Sound Country; Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903); West Side Story ed. by Clay Eals (Seattle: Robinson Newspapers, 1987); Olympia Columbian, June 4, 1853; Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 21, 1996; Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); West Seattle News, May 15, 1903; West Seattle Herald, February 2, 1924; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 7, 1998; Ibid., November 13, 2000; The Seattle Times, October 20, 1997; Ibid., February 24, 1998; Ibid., May 26, 2000; Albert Furtwangler, Answering Chief Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Seattle Press-Times, March 7, 1893; Jane Wilson MacGowan, “Gully, Cove Fill Childhood with Memories,” Neighbors, Spring 2000; West Seattle Memories: Alki (Seattle: Southwest Seattle Historical Society, 1999); Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle’s Parks (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publications, 1979); Deborah Bach, “Indians Are Out, Wildcats Are In at West Seattle High,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 25, 2003.
By Cassandra Tate, July 08, 2001
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